The landscapes that Manet, Monet, Sisley, Renoir, and Caillebotte painted at Argenteuil during the 1870s and 1880s have been widely hailed as a high point of Impressionism. Paul Tucker has identified these artists' views of Argenteuil as "some of the most novel canvases of their careers" and has asserted, "Their paintings constitute one of the most remarkable bodies of work in the history of art, making Argenteuil synonymous with Impressionism and a touchstone for the development of Western visual culture" (in exh. cat., op. cit., Washington, D.C., 2000, p. 14). At the end of the nineteenth century, Argenteuil was a burgeoning suburban enclave of around eight thousand inhabitants. Prominently situated on the right bank of the Seine eleven kilometers west of Paris, the town was a popular destination during the summer months for recreational boaters and weekend vacationers. Caillebotte first visited Argenteuil in 1878, the same year that Monet moved away from the town after seven extremely fruitful years in residence there. In 1881, following his mother's death and the sale of the family estate in Yerres, Caillebotte and his brother Martial purchased a house directly across the river from Argenteuil in the quieter, more rustic town of Petit Gennevilliers. For the final decade of his career, this stretch of the Seine would be the focus of Caillebotte's artistic activities. Depicting the highway bridge that connects Argenteuil and Petit Gennevilliers, the present canvas is among Caillebotte's boldest and most inventive canvases from this period. Anne Distel has written, "With its surprising yet subtle composition and its intense color scheme, this painting is incontestably one of the most successful works executed by Caillebotte on the banks of the Seine" (in exh. cat., op. cit., Paris, 1994, p. 283).
Caillebotte's interest in Argenteuil was most likely inspired both by his passion for sailing and by the example of his close friend Monet. The Seine is deeper and broader at Argenteuil and Petit Gennevilliers than anywhere else in the environs of Paris, offering optimal conditions for boating. The most elegant yacht club in the capital, the Cercle de la Voile de Paris, had its moorings at Argenteuil, and the town was even chosen as the site for the sailing competition during the Exposition Universelle of 1867. Caillebotte competed in his first regatta in 1879 and quickly became a devotee of the fashionable new sport. In 1882, he began to design his own sailboats, which became well-known for their impressive record of victories, and he even financed his own boat construction yard at Petit Gennevilliers starting in 1886. Although Monet did not share Caillebotte's interest in sailing, he too may initially have been drawn to Argenteuil for its spectacular stretch of the Seine. Between 1871 and 1878, Monet painted no fewer than a hundred views of Argenteuil, including a scene of a regatta that formed part of Caillebotte's own collection (Wildenstein, no. 233; Musée d'Orsay, Paris). The motifs that Caillebotte chose to paint at Argenteuil, such as the highway bridge and the boat basin, were ones that Monet too had explored, yet Caillebotte personalized this pictorial repertory with more dramatic vantage points and consistently bolder color than that of his celebrated predecessor.
The highway bridge (fig. 1) was one of two bridges that spanned the Seine between Argenteuil and Petit Gennevilliers, a distance of approximately two hundred meters. The other was the railway bridge, a few hundred meters to the north. The railway bridge is visible in the background of the present painting on the right and also forms the subject of another canvas that Caillebotte painted around the same time (Berhaut, no. 333; Brooklyn Museum). The two bridges were dramatically different in both materials and design. Originally built in 1830-1831, the highway bridge was made from wood and cut stone, with a traditional elevation based on a series of seven graceful, rounded arches springing from carved pilings. Prior to the arrival of the railroad at Argenteuil, the highway bridge provided the only way over the Seine and hence represented the town's principal link to Paris. Serving pedestrians and horse-drawn vehicles, it remained in Caillebotte's day one of the area's most noted landmarks, evoking for contemporary viewers the picturesque Argenteuil of yesteryear. The railway bridge, in contrast, was a marvel of modern engineering, embodying everything new and progressive about the town. Constructed in 1863 from poured concrete and pre-fabricated iron, it had a stripped-down, industrial design, with four pairs of slender, cylindrical supports and a straight, unadorned trestle. As a pair, the two bridges (both destroyed during the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-1871 and re-erected shortly thereafter) provided a potent visual analogue for the contrasts of modern life: industry and nature, work and pleasure, town and country, new and old.
The way in which Caillebotte chose to paint the highway bridge, however, was anything but traditional. Indeed, Tucker has described the composition as exemplifying Caillebotte's "typical imagination and distinctly modernist flair" (ibid., p. 116). Rather than depicting the entire structure from a distance, Caillebotte drew in close to the bridge, concentrating on a single span, which slices across the canvas at a slight angle. To paint the scene, he stood on the Petit Gennevilliers bank, looking toward the houses and factories of Argenteuil. Most likely, he set up his easel on a floating dock near the highway bridge that served as the headquarters of the local boat-keeper; this structure forms the central motif of a canvas that Caillebotte painted in 1886-1887, this time standing on the bridge itself and looking down over the boat basin (Berhaut, no. 276; fig. 2). In the present painting, Caillebotte has adopted a low, angled vantage point, elevating the bridge so high on the picture plane that its underside is fully exposed. The five steel ribs that form the underpinnings of the span leap across the width of the picture, with the far rib silhouetted against the sky. The horizontal thrust of the bridge is cunningly echoed in the pattern of dark and light bands creating a shadow which plays across the surface of the water. Tucker lauds the masterful imapsto explaining: "Everything in the picture is subject to the flickering light that Caillebotte so sensitively renders with his broken brushwork and lively palette, just as everything is vulnerable to the possibilities of transformation, whether through the powers of modern art or those of modern life" (ibid, 116). Even the bottom edge of the roadbed overhanging the nearest arch is visible for inspection. This dramatic perspective, moreover, is not the only striking feature of the composition; equally inventive is the unexpected cropping. Caillebotte has depicted only the left-hand pier of the span, cropping out its pendant on the right. As a result, the five steel arches appear to leap into a void. Tucker has written, "The only things that hold them up are our belief in the existence of a pier beyond the frame and our trust in Caillebotte's artfulness" (ibid., p. 116).
The audacity of Caillebotte's view of the highway bridge at Argenteuil is evident by comparison with earlier renderings of the structure. Monet and Sisley had both painted the bridge as early as 1872, depicting it from a distance, with its straight roadbed and rhythmic arcade closing off a panorama of the boat basin (Monet: Wildenstein, no. 225; Musée d'Orsay, Paris; Sisley: Daulte, no. 30; Memphis Brooks Museum of Art, Memphis). Renoir opted for a similarly picturesque composition when he painted the bridge in 1882, adding a screen of trees in the foreground (private collection). In 1874, Monet painted a series of six views of the structure, drawing closer than he had two years earlier. Two of these show the bridge thrusting into the scene on a steep diagonal (Wildenstein, nos. 311-312; see Lot xxx, fig. 4), while the remaining examples focus on a single span, which stretches across the width of the canvas (Wildenstein, nos. 313-316; fig. 3). In no version, however, does Monet approach the novelty of the present composition, with its dramatically angled vantage point, radical cropping, and close-up view of the bridge's girding. Indeed, the closest precedent for these innovations comes from Caillebotte's own oeuvre: namely, the two views that he made in 1876-1877 of the Pont de l'Europe in Paris, the first showing a deep, plunging view along one of the bridge's six spans (Berhaut, no. 49; Musée du Petit Palais, Geneva) and the other painted from the center of the structure, its massive iron trellises parallel to the picture plane (Berhaut, no. 51; fig. 4). Not until the early twentieth century, in paintings such as Robert Delaunay's Tour Eiffel series of 1909-1912 and Joseph Stella's Brooklyn Bridge paintings of 1919-1922 (fig. 5), would a structural latticework again take such obvious center stage.
Another noteworthy feature of the present painting is its attention to the mechanics of the bridge at Argenteuil, which interested Caillebotte as an amateur engineer and boat designer. The artist clearly differentiates between the perforated exterior ribs of the arch and the solid interior ones, for example, and also carefully articulates the bolt that attaches the farthest rib, illuminated by bright sun, into the midsection of the stone pier. Caillebotte's treatment of the bridge is comparable to his close-up images of figures rowing from the late 1870s, in which the structural details of the skiffs are picked out with crystalline clarity (e.g. Berhaut, nos. 75 and 93). The carefully devised composition of the present painting also suggests the way in which the various parts of the bridge work together to create an integrated whole. For example, the five steel ribs join together as they rise to the right, disappearing behind the closest rib just beyond the apex of the span. On the right, moreover, the rectangular perforations in the near rib coincide precisely with those of the rib on the far side, producing a complex interplay between arches in depth and on the surface of the canvas. The shadow of the far rib continues down the left-hand pier all the way to the water, ending at exactly the same point where the shadow of the roadbed begins. Finally, the arch of the far rib echoes that of the Orgemont hill in the background, suggesting a link between natural and man-made forms (although the lone figure on the roadbed is dwarfed by the massive pictorial architecture, destabilizing this tentative equilibrium). Tucker has concluded:
"The concurrence of these parts suggests Caillebotte's belief in the essential harmonies of the world, just as their dynamics underscore his embrace of the fundamentals of change that ruled his day. Nothing is entirely stable here; forms are cropped or moving through space, which itself is both open and confined, continuous and restricted. Everything in the picture is subject to the flickering light that Caillebotte so sensitively renders with his broken brushwork and lively palette, just as everything is vulnerable to the possibilities of transformation, whether through the powers of modern art or those of modern life" (ibid., p. 116).
The present painting was included in a retrospective exhibition of Caillebotte's work at the Galerie Durand-Ruel in Paris in June 1894, four months after the artist's death. According to an annotated copy of the exhibition catalogue in the Durand-Ruel archives, the painting belonged at the time to Eugène Lamy, a fellow yachting enthusiast and close friend of Caillebotte. In 1889, Caillebotte painted a portrait of Lamy that shows him standing on the banks of the Seine at Argenteuil, with the boat basin and the highway bridge visible in the background (Berhaut, no. 403; sold, Christie's, London, 6 February 2007, Lot 17). The 1894 exhibition was largely overshadowed by Caillebotte's controversial bequest to the French state of his collection of Impressionist paintings. Nevertheless, Durand-Ruel sold works from the exhibition to several important collectors, including the renowned baritone Jean Baptiste Faure, the writer and critic Adolphe Tavernier, and the merchant Edmond Decap, who purchased four canvases, including the present one.
(fig. 1) Postcard of the highway bridge at Argenteuil, late nineteenth century. Musée de l'Ile de France, Sceaux. BARCODE 26016085
(fig. 2) Gustave Caillebotte, Garage de bateaux à Argenteuil, 1886-1887. Private collection. BARCODE 24409377
(fig. 3) Claude Monet, Le pont routier, Argenteuil, 1874. Neue Pinakothek, Munich. BARCODE 24409360
(fig. 4) Gustave Caillebotte, Le Pont de l'Europe, 1877. Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth. BARCODE 24409384
(fig. 5) Joseph Stella, The Bridge (Brooklyn Bridge), 1920-1922. Newark Museum, New Jersey. BARCODE 24409391